Q: When a World War II .50-cal. gunner was asked during training if he shot the whole belt of cartridges, he answered: “Yes, the whole 9 yards.” The ammo belt was 27 feet. Now you know.
A: “The whole nine yards” is a whole lot older than World War II, which clearly rules out that popular theory about the origin of the expression.
Other debunked theories claim it originated with cement mixers, nuns’ habits, Scottish kilts, ships’ sails, shrouds, garbage trucks, a maharaja’s sash, a hangman’s noose, and so on.
Now for a few facts.
The expression has definitely been traced to the early 1900s, with possible roots in the 1850s. As more old documents are digitized, even older examples may show up.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “the whole nine yards” used figuratively to mean “everything” or “all of it” is from the June 4, 1908, issue of the Mitchell (IN.) Commerce:
“Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads. He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.”
A similar version of the expression (with “full” instead of “whole”) showed up a year earlier in the May 2, 1907, issue of the same Indiana newspaper:
“The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards.”
In both of those examples, the expression is being used metaphorically, much like “the whole ball of wax” (which showed up in 1882), “the whole kit and caboodle” (1888), or “the whole enchilada” (1960).
The OED also has a citation from the Jan. 30, 1855, issue of another Indiana newspaper, the New Albany Daily Ledger, for “the whole nine yards” used literally—for nine yards of cloth.
A comic story in the newspaper, with the headline “The Judge’s Big Shirt,” includes this passage:
“What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!”
The OED sees the later figurative use of the expression as “apparently originating in the frequently repeated comic story” that uses it literally.
We’ve also found the story in other newspapers in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as in Yankee Notions, a magazine published in New York City.
However, all these literal examples were published in 1855, half a century before the earliest known figurative examples.
Did that early literal usage inspire the figurative sense, as the OED suggests? We don’t know. Perhaps researchers will eventually fill in the gap with more examples.
One word sleuth, Richard Bucci, has discovered a tantalizing usage that predates the 1855 story.
Bucci, an editor for the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley, found two examples in the Dec. 4, 1850, issue of the Bowling Green (MO.) Democratic Banner in which “nine yards” is used to mean a lengthy verbal account. Here’s one:
“I will not attempt to follow you through your ‘nine yards’ in all its serpentine windings, but confine myself to one or two points more, and compare.”
Fred R. Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations, has described Bucci’s findings on the Linguist List forum, adding, “I think it likely that this is a surprisingly early precursor of ‘the whole nine yards.’ ”
Other researchers have found that cloth was often sold in multiples of three yards during the 19th century, and “nine yards” was a common measurement.
Here’s an example from a fabric advertisement in the March 29, 1856, issue of the Cambridge Chronicle: “Prints, nine yards for a dollar.”
And researchers have also found a comic story published in the 1870s and 1880s in which “nine yards to the dollar” is used figuratively to mean honest and straight talking.
In a version from the June 1870 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, a lawyer describes his client as “No. 1, extra inspected, scaled and screened, copper-fastened, free from scoots, silver-steel, buck-horn handle, nine yards to the dollar, thread thrown in!”
As more examples are discovered, we could finally learn the whole nine yards about “the whole nine yards.”
Still, this may not convince all the readers out there who have pet theories about the expression but no evidence to support them.
[Note: The person who wrote us about the machine-gun theory had this response to our answer: “You’re really full of shit.”]